Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana

Tonight was MiniMe’s first high school parents’ night. It was quite nerve wracking and I suddenly felt extra ancient – I think only one teacher was older than me and the rest looked like they were school prefects.

First up was history which is MiniMe’s favourite subject. The teacher is really pleased with how she’s settling in and the standard of her work is excellent. The only problem she has is that when she and her friend finish their work they start chatting, singing and generally put the rest of the class off their work. This wasn’t a surprise – when the two of them get together their voices get so high-pitched sometimes only dogs can hear them! I said I’d have a word but if they don’t calm down they’ll be separated.

On the upside the teacher is really keen to borrow my materials from when we hosted the national Holocaust Memorial Day which marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Like me she is interested in this terrible period of history and wants to visit Auschwitz.

I was lucky enough to go out on the first annual school trip, organised by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. I went with one of our councillors, two pupils from Stonelaw Academy and their teacher. I was there to help them make a video diary. It was a day trip which flew from Glasgow to Krakow. The night before we all heard a powerful and moving talk by Holocaust survivor Ernest Levy then it was a fitful night’s sleep before getting up at the crack of dawn for the flight.

Photo by Bill Hunt and Sophie Harrison, courtesy of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

Photo by Bill Hunt and Sophie Harrison, courtesy of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

The kids were full of chat on the way there about what they expected to see then before we knew it we were off the plane, on the bus and dropped at the gates of Auschwitz.

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We had a fabulous young guide who told the true story. We gazed unbelieving at the glass case full of suitcases, another full of spectacles, another full of gold teeth and yet another full of hair the hair that was shaved off people as they arrived. The case full of tiny baby clothes was the one that broke me.

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We were shown where the people came out of the cattle trucks onto the platform, full of hope for this new life that had been promised to them. We were shown where they were separated into two lines – one for able-bodied men and women, capable of work, the other for old people, disabled people, children and pregnant women. Children would have been wrenched away from their mothers and this line would have been marched straight to the gas chambers.

We were taken into one of those gas chambers and I thought I was going to pass out with the weight of the past pressing on my chest. From there we were silent as we got back onto buses to make the short trip to Birkenau. There isn’t much left of Birkenau except the watch tower and some of the huts where the workers lived.

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The Germans realised they were about to lose the war so they razed the place to the ground to try to hide the evidence of the atrocity. The view from the watch tower is frightening. The outline of where the huts were stretches as far as the eye can see – the scale of the suffering was tremendous.

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We visited Auschwitz in winter and that was done on purpose. It was bitterly cold even with winter boots and gear on – I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been wearing the camp issue pyjamas and not having any nourishing food to keep you going.

The kids on that trip were all marvellous but there was no chit chat  on the way home. When HimIndoors came to pick me up at the airport I couldn’t speak about what I’d seen. When we got home I showed him the pictures in my camera and that’s when the tears started, great heaving sobs that wouldn’t stop.

Every day I think about Auschwitz. If I see a hair brush with hair stuck in it, every morning when I get in the shower, I’m right back there putting myself in their shoes.

And the sad thing is that this kind of atrocity is still going on, all in the name of religion, race and just being different.

This post was meant to be about parents’ night with a nice recipe for gingerbread but somehow now that seems inappropriate. Just talking about the Holocaust has brought the horror of that trip back and I felt I had to share it.

Holocaust Memorial Day will marked in schools around the country around January 27 – if you have the chance to go along to one please do.

If you ever have the chance to visit Auschwitz please take it. The reason we know so much about Auschwitz is because there were so many survivors who told their stories. We know practically nothing about the many other camps because there were next to no survivors – only 13 people survived Treblinka. This story has to keep being told, in honour of those who perished and those who lived through the horror.

Apologies for the sombre post – normal service will resume tomorrow.

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5 comments

  1. Roger White · January 18, 2013

    Carolyn – thank you for this – very moving and mirrors my own own experience of visiting that dreadful place many years ago when Poland was under communist rule. Two of my daughters also made the school trip to Auschwitz – from Aberdeen. Like the pupils you went with there was a distinct feeling of oppression when they returned. One went on to speak (twice) at Holocaust Memorial Day events in Aberdeen.

    My only tiny comment might be on your words ‘full of hope for this new life that had been promised to them.’ Sadly I suspect that by the long journey in cattle trucks across Europe many of the victims had no illusions about any new life.

    • carolynemitchell · January 18, 2013

      My understanding on talking to Ernest Levy was that many thought they were going to a new life away from the ghettos and that even those who knew were so acquiescent because of the strong Jewish faith in that everything is God’s will.
      I hope that even with Government cutbacks these trips continue.

  2. vindicat · January 21, 2013

    A very brave and honest post. I visited Dachau, near Munich, when I lived in Germany, some 15 years ago. I was aprehensive – worried that the camp would be a theme park and not an accurate representation of the horror it witnessed. I was wrong. It was a baking hot day but the atmosphere across the camp was degrees cooler. I have no known connections to WW2 and wasn’t prepared for my own emotional reaction to the visit. We walked round in complete silence. Many visitors openly wept but I felt I had no right to cry – those imprisoned, tortured and killed at Dachau shed enough tears. And like you, we couldn’t speak about our experience on the way home. I haven’t spoken about it much since – it’s not a real conversation starter. Everyone who gets the chance should vist a camp.

    • carolynemitchell · January 21, 2013

      I couldn’t agree more. I had no connection before I went but I feel a strong connection now. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. Pingback: Adventures doon the watter | carolynemitchell

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